By Rosemary K. Otzman
Van Buren Township is working hard to comply with the country’s new Affordable Care Act, signed by President Obama in March 2010 – and the work shifts of part-time fire fighters are at risk.
Fire fighters have to watch their hours meticulously or they could lose their jobs.
Township Supervisor Linda Combs said two important designations of the Affordable Care Act includes whether or not a business is a large employer or a small employer. Those with at least 50 full-time employees are considered large employers.
Van Buren Township is considered a large employer and is required to provide affordable health care to all employees who work an average of 30 hours or more a week or 130 hours a month.
“Van Buren Township is not in the financial position to offer health care benefits to its part-time employees,” Supervisor Combs said in a fact sheet distributed by her office.
Supervisor Combs said the VBT Fire Department has 38 part-time, paid-on-call fire fighters and is hardest hit by this mandate.
She said Interim Public Safety Director Greg Laurain and Fire Chief Dan Besson are working to ensure compliance with the Act, while at the same time maintaining the excellent fire fighting and medical emergency services VBT residents and others have grown to expect.
Combs said, contrary to rumors, no exemptions have been made for public safety or fire fighting personnel. She said there presently exists no waiver or opt-out provision.
Combs said VBT staff has been in contact with both federal and state legislators and they have met with State Senator Patrick Colbeck regarding the impact of the Affordable Care Act on fire department training, operation, and staffing hour limitations.
On Feb. 25, Combs sent out a stern memo to all township directors and supervisory personnel informing them that as of March 1, the tracking of hours for all part-time employees would be in full effect to determine employee status.
A copy of the memo was obtained by the Independent through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“According to consistent attorney opinion, tracking of employee hours was to have begun in October 2012,” Combs wrote in the memo. “Beginning tracking on this date would have enabled the township to provide a 12-month window within which employers were to ensure compliance with the legislative mandate that full-time employment will be determined with 30-hour weekly / 130-hour monthly averages.
“But, since tracking did not officially begin until February 2013, flexibility with hours is now significantly compromised to fall below this aforementioned average.
“The auditing process for all part-time hours was back-tracked to Jan. 1, 2013. Unfortunately, several employees exceeded the 29-hour maximum, so the month of January could not be used in the tracking window.
“The month of February also had a few part-time employees in excess of 29 hours per week, so February cannot be used in the tracking window,” she wrote.
“Given the devastating financial impact the Health Care Reform Act legislation could have on Van Buren Township, it is vital that ALL part-time employees work neither more than 29 hours per week nor 129 hours per month.
“Directors have been informed regarding the issue that could arise with scheduling in months with 31 days – a 29-hour work week could result in significantly more than 129 hours in the month. In those circumstances, directors and employees MUST plan ahead and reduce the work week(s) accordingly to comply.”
Combs emphasized, “Exceptions to the 29 hours per week/129 hours per month will not be made under any circumstances, including deadlines, special events, or covering for absences. Please plan the remainder of your calendar year ahead to ensure adequate staffing for any issues that might arise.”
Combs warns that VBT is not in the financial position to provide full-time employment or benefits for its part-time staff.
“Failure of directors or supervisory personnel to ensure employee compliance will result in disciplinary action and may result in elimination of part-time staffing positions,” Combs stated.
VBT fire fighters told the Independent that they will have to reduce their duty crew hour shifts to two, 12-hour shifts a week, and allow five hours for training and call-backs. This could result in not enough duty crew fire fighters available to man two fire stations during a month, they said.
Reportedly there was a problem with filling all the duty crew slots for March.
Also, fire fighters voiced concern about what would happen at a big fire when some of the fire fighters are at their 29-hour limits. They asked: Would they have to stop fighting the fire and go home?
By Rosemary K. Otzman